Childhood pictures and a reading in Lowell

My brother and I appeared together at Umass Lowell last night. Our joint appearances are always different and unique, and this one was no exception.

Our last joint appearance was New York’s Union Square, on September 25. That was a very elaborate setup, with a backdrop, fancy furniture, sound absorbent padding and even TV cameras. Last night’s show was the opposite – it was a minimalist production. We had a great big totally empty stage, thirty-six feet of polished hardwood to pace back and forth. Absolutely nothing obstructed the audience’s view of us as we walked and talked for an hour.

Luckily, our all-weather clothes held up and we were not compromised. The advantage of a big stage and a large hall is that it’s very hard for the audience to hit you with objects. There’s room to move. When I was starting out in the music business, we sometimes played smaller stages, and when we did shows in those “intimate” settings, we sometimes needed protective screens of chicken wire placed between us and the adoring fans.

My brother had not been to Lowell before, even though we live less than 90 miles away. As I pointed out, Lowell is famed as the Gateway To Billerica, which is itself renowned for three things:

1) Outlaw bikers who rode to my music shows in Boston in the 1970s,
2) The Operation Center for the Springfield Terminal Railway,
3) And most of all – the Copart Salvage Auction, where insurance companies from all over New England bring wrecks to be sold to junkyards, recyclers, and the occasional edgy used car dealer who’ll make one car out of three.

Seeing a talkative crowd, we moved quickly to take questions and comments from the audience. One person asked about descriptive phrases in literature. She cited this example, which I paraphrase roughly:

Hearing a gunshot in the night, he cast off the sheet so he could hear with his whole body.

My brother agreed that was a very descriptive and wonderful phrase. Not me. I thought the writer was imaginative, but ignorant of the hard reality of armed marauders.

I said, That was obviously written by someone who has never come under fire at night. I would throw off the sheet and reach under the bed, for the shotgun.

That just shows that not all writers think alike. Some will listen closely, and others will shoot back. A few will use high powered lasers, and some would dismiss the whole thing as a bad acid trip.

We had a few moms in the audience with Aspergian kids. I was pleased to pass on the name of the Asperger’s Association – I certainly hope we proved inspirational to them.

We had some teachers in the audience too, which we sort of expected, being in a college auditorium. Seeing that, a question flashed into my mind: In a crowd of teachers and students, where both are asking questions . . . . are the questions from the teachers smarter or more insightful? Should they be?

I don’t know. How do you tell them apart? It’s very hard from 100 feet. I’m going to pay close attention to this at future school events.

At the end of each event we (or I) sit at a table to sign books and meet readers. Last night’s line was an hour long, over 100 people. I wish we could go faster. That’s a lot of books to sign. I commend all who endured the line while retaining good humor. There was only one scuffle, which was quelled as soon as it began. My brother and I autographed an eight-year-old, also. Actually, we autographed the eight-year-old’s shirt, while affixed to the eight-year-old.

Here we are signing books. The line behind us is still pretty long. Photo by Rick Colson

Our attendees get younger every day. And if I may just have a word about that . . . any aspiring author would be wise to cultivate the eight-year-old crowd, as we are obviously successfully doing. Why? Because they will be reading (statistically speaking) longer than my brother or me will be writing.

In contrast, my brother and I will probably outlast the seventy-year-old readers. Don’t get me wrong . . . they’re welcome to attend our events, but we encourage them to bring grandchildren.

Professionals call that strategy Reader Development.


I love the story of your and Augusten's different reactions to the poetic line about the gun. It really highlights the fact that there is more that one way to be a terrific writer. So many people make sweeping generalizations about how writers think and see the world, as if they were a homogenous lot.

I'm enjoying your blog. And I guess I'll have to buy a copy of your book. The library has written to me demanding their copy of it back. Go figure.
John Robison said…
I'm so glad you have finally resolved to buy the book. You'll feel better once you've done it.
Unknown said…
Being on the teacher side of things I can say that all questions are important, no matter what age the person is that they come from:)

I have wanted to write you since I read your book. I have recommended it to so many of the parents and fellow teachers I work with. I teach an elementary autism class in Fairfax County Virginia and have worked with kids with autism for over 10 years. I have read Temple Grandin's books as well as countless others. Your book however was exactly what I was waiting for, it helped me to really come to a better understanding of what my little kiddies are going through. I look at them often and wonder what it is like inside their brain. You did an excellent job at capturing that for me, there were moments in your book I had chills because I could put some of the kids in my class inside your descriptions.

The title of your book says it all. And I realize I say that to several of the kids I work with, I don't do that so much anymore. I look at it with a fresh perspective now and I have your book to thank for that. I do a lot more explaining to the kids, like telling them why I want them to look in my direction when I talk to them, so I think they are actually listening to me!

Some of my favorite sections of your book were we when you say very clearly that you did not want to be alone even though some people feel that is the case with Aspergians(I love that term by the way). I also could relate to the part of the book where you talk about how you made a choice to become normal. I can really see how some of the kids I work with let their obsessions turn them inside themselves. I also really loved the way you describe your marriage and sleeping in a pile, it made me laugh out loud. My husband thought I was nuts when I read your book with all the laughing I was doing:)

When I saw your book coming out I went right to the bookstore to get it. I picked out another random book that looked good to me ( it happened to be your brother's which I thought was pretty coincidental!) I think you are amazing for writing this book after all you have been though, and I truly thank you for it. I think it will not only help the parents of the children I work with to have a better understanding of their child, but also will help fellow Aspergian's to know they are not alone.

I was at a conference yesterday and today with a bunch of fellow autism teachers and told them all about your book so don't be surprised if you see book sales going up!!!!

Good luck to you and your family,

The Muse said…

I loved the slide show. It's fun to look at childhood photos to gain perspective on our lives. You still have the same serious, contemplative expression on your face with the furrowed brow. Although one of those Xmas trees looks so scrawny it could be Charlie Brown's pathetic little tree. And what were your parents thinking when you were walking in the snow wearing only shorts? I was surprised how beautiful that your mom was. You resemble your father a great deal and your brother looks like your mom. The photo of you in the tree looks so much like your son, Cubby. I must say that I was glad to see several pictures of you smiling.
Polly Kahl said…
Love the slideshow, John. What a sweet boy you were. Had to laugh at the Charlie Brown Christmas tree and the post hole images. You look exactly the same, just a little older now.
ssas said…
I covet your bro's jacket.
Liz Smith said…
Your hour of answering questions on that spare stage in Lowell was a delight for me and my husband. You both spoke with humor, compassion and insight, and I just might have learned something too :)

I couldn't wait to see the childhood slides you spoke about and they are even better than I imagined.

Thanks so much for sharing your life with us, it's truly appreciated.

Popular Posts